Evgeny Kutznetsov return Dec 7 tv

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Evgeny Kuznetsov said he believes the best way for him to approach his return to the Washington Capitals lineup when they host Dallas Stars at Capital One Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN) is the simplest one.

“Play hockey better in every area,” Kuznetsov said Wednesday. “It’s simple: Just play better and a lot of things will turn around. Kind of answer that way.”

That’s the response Capitals coach Spencer Carbery would like to see from Kuznetsov as well after the center was a healthy scratch for a 6-0 loss at the Arizona Coyotes on Monday.

“I’m hoping we see what I saw today in practice, a highly motivated player that was competing at a high level,” Carbery said. “He was moving his feet, trying to attack. So hopefully, we see that tomorrow.”

Kuznetsov, who will play his 700th NHL game Thursday, hasn’t been doing that enough this season. The 31-year-old has nine points (four goals, five assists) in 19 games, including one in his past six games, a goal in a 2-1 loss at the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 27.

With the Capitals (12-8-2) ranked 31st in the NHL in scoring with 2.27 goals per game, ahead of only the Sharks (2.00), Kuznetsov knows they need more production from him.

“I feel like we’ve been missing those 15-20 points by me and that’s 20 goals (for the team),” he said. “If we could score those 20 goals, we’d probably be top-10 in the League in regard to scoring, so that’s what we’re missing. And I understand that.”

Washington has managed to survive despite being held to one goal or fewer in eight of its 22 games, but knows that’s probably not sustainable. And Kuznetsov has shown in the past he can be a difference maker by driving the offense.

He has 560 points (169 goals, 391 assists) in 699 regular-season games and 67 points (29 goals, 38 assists) in 87 Stanley Cup Playoff games since entering the League in 2013-14 after being selected by the Capitals with the No. 26 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft.

Kuznetsov led the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 24 games when Washington won the Stanley Cup in 2018, but he has been plagued by inconsistency since.

After a disappointing 2020-21 season when he had 29 points (nine goals, 20 assists) in 41 games, Kuznetsov rebounded with 78 points (24 goals, 54 assists) in 79 games in 2021-22 before dropping off again to 55 points (12 goals, 43 assists) in 81 games last season, when the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14.

“This may be a little abstract, but ‘Kuzy’ is an artist,” ESPN analyst Ray Ferraro said. “He’s an artist for both the good and the bad … and they need him too much. He’s an important, important player for them, and he didn’t forget how to play. It’s not like he can’t pass. He’s just got to find the engine. He’s got to find the pace for him to be effective.”

Ferraro, a former forward who had 898 points (408 goals, 490 assists) in 1,258 games during his 18 NHL seasons, said getting that pace back, if Kuznetsov can find it, might help him rediscover his offensive potential.

“It’s not just a switch,” Ferraro said. “There has to be a desire to do that. It’s hard. It’s really hard. … As I got older, the one thing I was mindful of basically was my engine, and if you’re not, it’s pretty easy to lose a half a step. In the game of today, a half a step is a complete difference maker.”

Robertson, Stars clash with Ovi, Capitals at 8PM ET

Reports from Russia had Kuznetsov requesting a trade after last season because he believed his talent was being stifled under coach Peter Laviolette, who mutually parted ways with Washington when his contract expired after last season and was hired by the New York Rangers. Kuznetsov declined to say at the start of training camp if he asked for a trade, calling the situation “complicated,” but was looking forward to a fresh start under Carbery.

Even after being unhappy about being scratched Monday (he used an expletive to describe his reaction), Kuznetsov expressed his admiration for Carbery.

“I love him so much and he’s trying to help me, trying to help the team, but unfortunately the result wasn’t there,” Kuznetsov said. “So I feel like it’s on me too a lot, you know? But the good thing is there is a game tomorrow, so we can prove that there was a one-time situation and we can learn from that.”

It’s not like Carbery hasn’t given Kuznetsov opportunities. He has played in all situations, including on the first power-play unit and the penalty kill, and leads Capitals forwards in averaging 21:00 in ice time per game.

And it’s not as if Kuznetsov is the only Washington forward who has struggled; Alex Ovechkin, who is second in NHL history with 827 goals and is one point from becoming the 16th NHL player to reach 1,500, is tied with defenseman John Carlson for the Capitals’ lead with 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 22 games and has no goals in his past seven games.

But Carbery said he thought Kuznetsov’s play dropped off in recent weeks, and hoped sitting him for a game might help him reset mentally.

“I know ‘Kuzy’ didn’t necessarily agree with the decision, which he’s completely entitled to, and I understand that from his perspective,” Carbery said. “But my objective is, hopefully, him sitting brings a better player and brings the version that we’ve all seen and know he’s capable of being and, frankly, what we need as a team. We need that caliber of player of what he’s capable of doing, and that’s what we’re hoping we see.”